By Dr. Holly Ordway
Where do poems come from?
For me, writing poetry is seeing and discovery; open reception and active building; a fascination with the words themselves, and a tension between the chosen word and the experience that is always fuller, richer, deeper than what the word expresses.
I feel for words, testing them out, and following where they lead me. I love the way that different words evoke different images, with subtle shifts, the way that sound interacts with meaning in a word. I am fascinated by etymology, the way that a word’s linguistic origin flavors it.
Sometimes the right word often comes only after long experimentation, the testing-out of almost-right and not-at-all-right words until the key clicks in the lock; sometimes the right word comes at once, trailing the rest of the line with it, perhaps shaping the whole poem around it.
Sleek over tumbled stones. Ice films a fallen
Branch, caesura in the water’s way
As it murmurs through the woods and fields.
The first line came to me nearly complete. I was walking along a brook in the winter after a fresh, heavy snow, delighting in the sharp contrasts of color and texture: the snow piled along the banks of the brook, the clear, dark, moving water; the crisp films of ice. Since I feel a deep connection to Anglo-Saxon poetry, I am drawn to the use of alliteration and assonance to create (or discover) music in a line; that’s probably why I decided that first ‘found’ line was worth building a poem around.
The rest of the quatrain was ‘building’ rather than discovery. Because I write mainly sonnets, the constraints of meter and form shape my choices. The shaping is what makes discovery possible: the testing-out of words and phrases, images and themes, in conjunction with the music of language and the shaping discipline of the form. The very difficulty of sonnet-writing, the need to make the poem work in fourteen lines, with rhyme (sometimes full; more often slant), with meter, creates a crucible in which images and words are tested, reshaped, born into something good – something, indeed, that may be more than I consciously meant.
The word that makes this quatrain work is caesura. It’s a technical term for a pause or break in a line of poetry, and it’s one of the characteristic elements of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry. When I hit upon this word, I knew it was the right one. The pause in the rippling water as it came to a half-submerged broken branch seemed an apt image for the pause for breath in the middle of a poetic line, and it connected the poem-as-written with the image that prompted the poem. Finding the word ‘caesura’ was probably related to the choice of ‘murmurs’ (since both have to do with spoken words) but I’m not sure which came first.
As I’ve been writing this piece, and looking again at this quatrain, I can see now another connection that was not in my mind as I wrote it. The choice of ‘caesura’ to describe the slight pause in the water’s flow serves to point out that the winter brook is a wordless poem, as we see in Psalm 19:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
…There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
I did not have this in mind when I wrote the quatrain, yet it was implicit in the words that I chose: it is a discovery that came from being receptive to the language and the image. I like this connection very much, now that I see it!
When I wrote this quatrain last winter, I intended to develop it into a full sonnet, but it stalled out after the fourth line, so I let it rest. Perhaps now I have discovered the thread to follow to open it out into a sonnet.
I look forward to seeing where it takes me.
Holly is a poet, teacher, and apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway’s reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at http://www.hieropraxis.com.